Milan, Italy: Roger Federer has offered his backing to embattled Roma icon Francesco Totti, claiming both sportsmen belong to a special breed of athlete and should be protected, like pandas.
Uncertainty over the future of 39-year-old Roma legend Totti, who steered the Giallorossi to their third and last title in 2001, has overshadowed the club's Serie A campaign all season.
Now in his 23rd season at Roma, one-club man Totti is being pushed towards the exit door after an injury-hit season that has seen him make only a handful of appearances for Luciano Spalletti's side.
Roma are stalling on offering Totti a 24th and final year's contract, reportedly in the hope he hangs up his boots to take a director's role at the club.
But Federer believes Totti should be allowed to decide when to quit the game. The 17-time Grand Slam winner is a long-time admirer of Totti, who regularly meets with the Swiss star when he comes to watch him play at the Rome Masters event every June.
Asked jokingly if he and Totti should be given protection from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Federer told Corriere della Sera: "It's a good joke, but there's some truth in it because, in a certain sense, we belong to another species.
"Francesco and I incarnate our respective sports. What he has done for football is unrivalled. He's an example, a contemporary icon."
Speaking ahead of the start of the Monte Carlo Masters, Federer added: "No one should tell you when to stop, it's such an intimate and personal decision.
"If he wants to keep on going, I'm right behind him. With me, he's always been super nice. This year, if I see him, I'll be asking him for some restaurant tips."
Roma sit in third place in Serie A, 13 points adrift of leaders and champions Juventus and seven points behind Napoli ahead of hosting Bologna later Monday.
But whether Totti plays or not remains to be seen.
The iconic captain fell foul of Spalletti six weeks ago after claiming he deserved more playing time and should be shown more respect.
Spalletti's firm reaction did little to help Totti's cause.
"He's Roma's biggest ever player, but it's my duty to make sure there is a balance in the dressing room," said Spalletti.
With 244 goals in Serie A, Totti is only second to retired, all-time record-holder Silvio Piola (274).
A World Cup winner with Italy in 2006, Totti has won two Italian Cups with Roma but has suffered finishing runner-up in the league an incredible eight times.